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Friday, 21 October, 2016 - 3:00 pm

On a terribly cold and relentlessly snowy morning in Moscow, Soviet citizens lined up five blocks long to await a shipment of meat from Odessa. After an hour, a loudspeaker announced that the shipment was smaller than expected, so all Jews were asked to leave the line. An hour later, there was an announcement that the meat shipment had been further curtailed, so anyone who was not a member of the Communist party must leave the line. Two hours later, there was a further announcement that a large quantity of the meat in the shipment was spoiled, so everyone except members of the Politburo was asked to leave the line. Three hours later, the snow falling continuously all this time, there was an announcement that the meat shipment from Odessa had been cancelled.

As they left, one Politburo member said to another, “Those Jews always have it easy.”
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are unique holidays. On one hand, it is these days when the joy of Sukkot peaks, with Jews dancing in ecstasy with the Torah. Yet on the very same joyous day, Shemini Atzeret, we recite Yizkor, the morbid moment of remembrance of our loved ones who have passed. How do the two themes co-exist—especially in Israel, where Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are combined into one day?
The answer to this requires profound meditation. The last two days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, constitute a strange hybrid in Jewish law, unlike any other Jewish holiday. In one sense, Shemini Atzeret (and its partner, Simchat Torah) is merely a continuation of the Sukkot holiday, of which it is the eighth day. In another sense, it is an independent and autonomous holiday in its own right. Thus, the Talmud states that in many ways it is part of Sukkot, except for six laws (represented by the acrostic “Pazer Keshev”) in which it is a separate holiday. Hence, like the eighth day of Passover, there is no special mitzvah of appearing in the Temple, as there is on the three pilgrim festivals. In this sense it is merely the end of Sukkot. But unlike Passover, we recite the Shehecheyanu on Shemini Atzeret, because it is a holiday in its own right. We do not shake the Lulav, because it is separate from Sukkot.
Shemini Atzeret, then, symbolizes the tension between continuity and autonomy, between the unbroken continuum of the past and the bold assertion of independence into the future. This is the secret of both Yizkor, and joy.
One of the most powerful things I ever read was written by a mother of a child with a disability. She was asked how it felt and wrote:
When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make wonderful plans. You will see the Coliseum, the gondolas in Venice, and Michelangelo’s David. You may even learn an Italian phrase. It's all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. When the plane lands, the stewardess says, "Welcome to Holland!" ''Holland?" you say. "What do you mean? I signed up for Italy! All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy." But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay. The important thing to remember is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place. It's just a different place.
So, you go out and buy new guidebooks. You learn a new language. You meet a whole group of people you never would have met.
It's just a different place. It's slower-paced and less flashy than Italy. But, after you are there awhile and have caught your breath, you begin to look around and notice that Holland has windmills, tulips, and even Rembrandts.
Everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. For the rest of your life, you might say: "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned..." The pain of that will never, never, ever go away because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But, if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't go to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, lovely things about Holland.”
Mrs. Gitty Lipsius teaches in Shevach High School in Queens. After having several children, she went through a full-term uneventful pregnancy, but tragically, this child was stillborn. She was devastated and sank into depression.
Mrs. Lipsius related that her father, Gershon, lost his entire family in the Holocaust, and after the war, he and his wife had trouble having children. After years, they had their first child, a little girl—who died four months later. Eventually, he and his wife had a family. Now, years later, he called his daughter Gitty and asked her how she was doing. She replied that she was doing terribly; she could not find herself and did not know how she would ever be the same again.
Her father said: “My dear daughter, you will never be the same. You are a new person. Find your newness. Get used to it, and live with it. When you accept your new situation, you will be able to go on.”
When her father gave her that insight and direction, Mrs. Lipsius realized how right he was. She related that once she accepted her new reality, she felt liberated. From that point on, she was able to function and accomplish again.
There is a profound message here. Life brings many changes, some small and some drastic. Too often we expect ourselves to “catch the flying curve balls” and then go back to being the same person we always were. But sometimes we can’t go back. Once I watched the earth swallow up my father, I can never be the same again. Once you have to say goodbye to your life-partner, you can never be the same again. Once you have to bid farewell to a child, you can never ever be the same again. It is ridiculous to even think, “Why can’t she just go back to being her old self again.”
Never try being the same person as before. That is impossible. You are not the same. A piece of you has been torn away. Now you are a new person. Let go of your old image of what life looked like and what it needs to look like. You are now in a new life. Your plane took you to Holland, not to Italy. Now, I need the courage to embrace the “new person” I have become.
This is the deep life-lesson behind the hybrid nature of Shemini Atzeret, which is both a continuum of the past, but also a new beginning. On one hand, our life is a bundle of memories of the past; we are always continuing the past and looking to reclaim the past. But if we try doing only that, we may remain paralyzed because we are trying to be something we are no longer. With loss, we have lost something of our past; we can’t go on searching for an obsolete existence.
Shemini Atzeret teaches us that while we are a continuation to all that comes before us, we must also realize that this is a new, independent holiday—in many ways a break-away of the previous holiday. When you can embrace your newness, you can begin dancing again.
There are seven stages in life between birth and death: Childhood, adulthood, marriage, children, grandchildren, growing old, and concluding our journey on earth. At each one of these, we are being taught to stop and let go before we can move on to the next stage in life.
It’s hard to let go of that picture of ourselves that we had in our youth. Indeed, it’s hard to let go of the dreams we had for ourselves in our youth, but there comes a time in life when we have to accept that they’re not going to come true anymore—at least not in the way we once hoped. We all start out with dreams of what our life is going to be like – dreams of love and beauty, fame and fortune, happiness and achievement – but in case you haven’t noticed, not all of our dreams come true.
Golda Meir was called lots of things in life, but no one ever called her “good looking.” That must have been very hard for her in her youth. But she writes in her autobiography, “I was never a beauty. There was a time when I was sorry about that. When I was old enough to understand the importance of it and looking in the mirror I realized it was something I was never going to have … it was much later that I realized that not being beautiful was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to develop my inner resources; I came to understand that women who cannot lean on their beauty and need to make something on their own have an advantage.”
It wasn’t a matter of Golda Meir learning to “settle” with what she was, it was a question of Golda Meir learning to be happy with what she was. Shemini Atzeret captures the secret of the duality necessary in life: Sometimes you have to know how to let go of the old and embrace the new; sometimes you have to know that the old is still here. Sometimes you have to appreciate that the person that was is no longer; a new self has emerged. But sometimes you have to know, in the words of Ecclesiastes (1:9) “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Yes, sometimes you have to look at life and say: Nothing has changed.
Sometimes you have to look at life and say: So much has changed.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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